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Sunday Rock Case Study
Varick A. Chittenden
Senior Folklorist & Director of Special Projects, Traditional Arts in Upstate New York
 
 
From the Woods to the World!

On a brisk, sunny late October day in 2011, a small group of local people gathered in the Adirondack hamlet of South Colton to celebrate the unveiling of a plaque, which reads:

Welcome to Sunday Rock

An Adirondack Landmark and Legend

This glacial boulder, twice preserved by local citizens, marks the gateway to the "Great South Woods.” In the frontier days it was said there was no law or no Sunday beyond this point. May all who pass this way continue to enjoy the beauty of the mountains.

Placed on the State and National Register of Historic Places - 2010

That day, in the words of Sally Swift Thomas, the local octogenarian who pretty much singlehandedly undertook the nomination process, "was one of the proudest days of my life!” According to the Watertown Daily Times the day following the plaque dedication: "When I [Ms. Thomas] first called…they said, ‘We don’t do rocks.’ But now they do. I looked up the word. It could be called a monument. Anything that marks the location of anything can be called a monument. It took about three years to do that. You had to have it pass through a lot of committees,” said Thomas. ‘[Ms. Thomas] received the good news in December 2010 when a representative she had been working with called to tell her the paperwork had passed muster with a final committee that determined it was significant enough to be placed on the National Register of Historic Places. She called about 2 o’clock in the afternoon. It was sort of funny. She said, ‘Sally. I have to tell you they didn’t like it.’ Pause. ‘I’ve got to tell you they loved it!’

 

Executive Summary

Sunday Rock, a large boulder on the roadside of New York State Highway 56 just west of the hamlet of South Colton in the northwestern Adirondack foothills, is an important landmark for locals and travelers alike. At 11 feet high and 64,000 pounds, the oblong boulder has been the stuff of local legend for at least 200 years, and has been important to the people of South Colton and around for just as long. Twice, in the twentieth century, local citizens rallied to save it from demolition during highway construction, and it is now safely located on its own small park by Route 56. Stories of the meaning of its name vary. Some accounts suggest it marked the point where the law and order of settled communities in the St. Lawrence River valley to the north stopped and the adjacent Adirondack wilderness began; south of it there was no Sunday, because lumber camp life and work were the same every day of the week. Others tell of a preacher, seeking to bring the gospel to the people in that part of the woods, being told not to bother going past the boulder because beyond it there was no Sunday or religion. Somewhat later on, the rock began to stand for the freedom, sport, and leisure of the woods and mountains to the south of it.


Sunday Rock in the small roadside park just west of the village of South Colton, New York. Photo
by Varick Chittenden, 2008, courtesy of TAUNY Archives.

In 2007, Thomas—who lives next door to Sunday Rock and whose own family and husband’s family have lived in the community for generations—initiated contact with the New York SHPO office to find out how to nominate the boulder to the National Register. No cultural resource survey had ever been done in the town of Colton; the only site in the township to be placed on the National Register previously was the Zion Episcopal Church, a Victorian Gothic building made of Potsdam red sandstone. But Thomas persisted and Lin Garofalini, the SHPO program officer who served the northern region of the state at the time, made a site visit that same year. Since the small park in which the boulder now sits is owned by the Town of Colton, Thomas sought the town board’s approval to go ahead with the nomination and they agreed. In early 2009, Thomas filled out the required registration form for a National Register nomination and, with the help of others in her community, gathered information and letters of support. Coincidentally, during that same period, representing Traditional Arts in Upstate New York (TAUNY)—the regional folklife organization—I worked with Thomas and others to nominate and document Sunday Rock for TAUNY’s Register of Very Special places (RVSP) as a cultural landmark in the region; it was approved by our board of directors in 2008, when it was added to our online gallery of RVSP sites (http://northcountryfolklore.org/rvsp/index.php?id=129) and documentation was added to the TAUNY Archives. That documentation included numerous published historical accounts—especially in local newspapers from the 1880s to the present—and several contemporary recordings of oral histories about the significance of Sunday Rock to the local community.

As is the apparent customary practice in the New York SHPO, program officers will assist laypersons with little experience in historic preservation to research sites they consider good prospects in order to make the best case with the state review board and the National Park Service. This was a very unusual nomination and, reportedly, quite controversial among the SHPO staff. Despite the considerable information provided in the nomination narrative about the oral traditions in the North Country about Sunday Rock and its symbolic and legendary nature to locals and travelers, the staff ultimately chose to emphasize its role "within the context of the early Conservation Movement”—an important historical period in the United States--in the statement of significance on the registration form. They based that on "its association with local efforts to preserve important natural and historic landmarks from the threats of demolition.” It was approved for the state register at the December 8, 2009 SHPO board meeting and listed on the National Register on December 7, 2010.

 

Background

First, I’ll summarize the narrative about the history of Sunday Rock, based on the information provided in the registration form for the National Register.

Originally deposited by a receding glacier, this glacial erratic boulder was set on its end atop a largely flat and open area in the foothills of the northern Adirondacks and in the middle of what was to become a main transportation corridor in and out of the Adirondacks from the St. Lawrence Valley. According to long lost oral tradition, this prominent natural feature was used by the Native Americans as a traveler’s landmark prior to European settlement. Sometime during the settlement period, the boulder became known as "Sunday Rock,” marking the transition "from the woods to the world.” According to local sources, the name for the boulder and its associations were well established by the 1860s and the surrounding communities embraced Sunday Rock with a source of pride identifying with its historic lore.

Because of its long value to local people as a landmark, Sunday Rock has been relocated twice in response to public highway projects on route 56 that threatened its survival. It was first moved in 1925 to make way for a new paved highway to replace the original dirt road that wound around it. Original plans were to remove the boulder by blasting; however, strong public outcry intervened and money was raised by scores of small contributions to pay for moving it to a safe place beside the highway. It was subsequently moved 12 feet north from the center to the side of the road. In 1965, Sunday Rock was again threatened with demolition to make way for a highway widening. Public outcry once again intervened and Sunday Rock was moved to the opposite side (south) of route 56 on farmland donated to the town by Thomas’s family, who had lived in the town for several generations. Sunday Rock now rests on a grassy island, alongside the road in a half acre park with picnic tables and benches. It has a blacktop entrance, exit and parking area. Two concrete monuments with metal plaques flank the mammoth boulder, each with plaques that commemorate the two moves and a narrative of the history of the rock.


Photo from Potsdam, New York's Courier & Freeman newspaper, July 1, 1965.
Besides the narrative description summarized above, an important part of any nomination is the "statement of significance.” Based on her own knowledge and research, Thomas emphasized three main points in her narrative: its evolution over time as a symbolic marker between civilization and wilderness; its emergence as a symbol of efforts to preserve the natural world from the onslaught of human destructiveness; and its continuing role as the subject of local legends, rituals, and formal literature. To explain:

  • From the arrival of large logging operations in the mid-to-late nineteenth century until at least the 1930s, woods crews typically moved into camps deep in the Adirondack woods, miles from settled communities. They would live in the camps from fall to spring, working seven days a week cutting, skidding and driving logs down rivers in highly dangerous, difficult work. They would go "to town” (like Colton) only occasionally, after paydays, and cause some raucous behavior and lots of excitement. As for South Colton, in the words of Thomas: "Given its location between the farms and wilderness, the giant boulder came to represent a demarcation point where law and order stopped and there was "no Sunday” according to local lore.” After World War I, people found it easier to travel for recreation; wilderness like the Adirondacks became a favorite destination for hunters, fishermen, hikers and paddlers, as well as to seasonal homes, called locally "camps.” In a 1968 article in the New York Times, Allan Posposil stated: "With the advent of motor cars early in the twentieth century, Sunday Rock came to stand for something else to those living on the north side of it ...when people from the valley passed [it] on their way to the mountains, they now felt a sense of arrival, of having crossed a dividing line where the woods and mountains now represented freedom, sport, sanctuary, exploration, health, exhilaration.”

  • The Adirondack Park—the largest park in the contiguous United States, with six million acres of wilderness deemed "forever wild” by a state constitutional convention in 1894—was a major example of the Conservation Movement that swept the United States and world beginning in the mid-nineteenth century. Ironically, late in that movement it was another rock, Plymouth Rock--rediscovered and rededicated in 1920 on the three-hundredth anniversary of the Pilgrim’s landing—that got much national attention; the event was the celebration of an object of nature with obvious symbolic value. Living with nature in a sustainable way captured the imagination of many. As for Sunday Rock, the great community response to the threat of demolishing the boulder to build a road into the Adirondacks in 1925 was a notable example of good conservation practices. Similarly, in 1965, when the local community devised a plan to move the rock when road widening was imminent, demonstrated continuing concern for the natural environment as well as for a local landmark.

  • As demonstrated well by folklorist Robert Bethke’s definitive book on oral traditions in the northern Adirondacks and the Colton vicinity—Adirondack Voices: Woodsmen and Woods Lore (1981)storytelling and folk traditions have been an important part of local life for a long time. As Thomas wrote: "Saluting the rock became a kind of joyful ritual to be observed. Elders might uncork a bottle on it and children could cut up without a fear or scolding. Hunters and fishermen had the feeling of eager anticipation as the cares of everyday life were left behind as they passed Sunday Rock on their way to the woods.” The stories of occupational and recreational life in the woods—indeed the local legend and its variations about Sunday Rock itself—are rich. Besides fieldwork by Bethke and folklorists at TAUNY, articles about the boulder have appeared occasionally in local newspapers, magazines and books. In 1941, it received national attention when it was included in the popular syndicated newspaper feature Ripley’s Believe it or Not. In 1992, a local musician and music teacher produced a full-length play—Sunday Rock: The Folk Musical—she had written, based on local woodsmen’s stories she had collected; it was revived in 2012 with great community response. And, in recent years, the rock has been the site of weekly singalongs for summer campers from nearby Higley Flow and a state park, as well as a destination for student groups from the Colton-Pierrepont Central School to learn about geology, local history, and folklore.


Sunday Rock’s significance is linked in part to its continuing role as the subject of local legends, rituals, and formal literature.


While as noted above Sunday Rock was accepted for both the state and National Register, it was, as Kathleen LaFrank, told me, as "a historic property.” No effort had been made by Thomas, Garofalini or others in the New York SHPO to nominate or consider it as a traditional cultural property. Obviously not an architectural example, for their own Review Board and for the National Park Service, they chose to emphasize its significance for its 1920s-era rescue from demolition as a commendable act of historic preservation within the context of the conservation movement cited above. When I asked LaFrank recently whether someone could have made a case for it as a TCP, she replied, "No. A tourist object from the 1920s is not the same as a site associated with the spiritual or definitive cultural beliefs of a cultural group.” She added: "Most of us who looked at the documentation thought that the historical associations were unsupportable and were, in fact, fictive, having been conceived in the 1920s to protect the rock (then threatened). The significance that was "developed” for the site in the 1920s and modeled after what was going on at Plymouth Rock, we were ok with – that was a good story, a relevant historical context; but there was no documentary or ethnographic evidence that the rock was a sacred object from the 19th century for any continuing cultural group. For example, I recall something (and I can’t remember where I read it) saying the rock "must have been a landmark for natives.” Not exactly solid documentation.”

 

Folklorists’ Perspective

Folklorists are involved in the documentation of nominated sites for TAUNY’s Register of Very Special Places. For Sunday Rock, in 2007 and 2008, I helped local town historians look for documents and photographs in the files of the Town of Colton Museum and Town Historian’s files. I recorded extensive interviews with Thomas and Evelyn Riehl, who wrote the "folk musical” she called Sunday Rock. Together, we searched through various written accounts and photographs, maps, and other documents. This is the kind of documentation—that which comes from the community—that we seek for RVSP, evidence of the social and cultural history, the contemporary uses of a site, and of the values that local people place on the site.

We determined that the boulder met the following RVSP criteria:

  • Place for community gatherings
  • Place that has served multiple generations over time
  • Place where an important local historical event or movement occurred and is remembered
  • Place is source of or repository of local beliefs, customs or stories
  • Place is physical marker on the local landscape
  • Place that’s a factor in community or regional identity
  • Place that’s an example of the vanishing regional or American landscape

At the July, 2008, meeting of the TAUNY board of directors, Sunday Rock was added to RVSP. Subsequently, a page with text, photos, a locator map and specific criteria for selection to RVSP was added to the Gallery of Places on the RVSP website. An RVSP plaque was presented to the Town of Colton with a public presentation and ceremony in combination with other local activities on July 31, 2010.

In the publicity about RVSP available to local communities in the North Country, TAUNY includes several benefits to getting a site on our register. They include a profile on the RVSP website, copies of all the documentation for appropriate repositories in the community and the TAUNY Archives, and an attractive RVSP slate marker for the site. We also state: "Your documentation could be helpful in efforts to nominate your site to the National Register of Historic Places and in finding resources to help save the site for future generations.” Only very recently have we been asked to do that.


RSVP webpage for Sunday Rock.

By the time we started working on Sunday Rock for RVSP, discussions had already occurred between Thomas and SHPO. Frankly, I now believe being more emphatic about the folkloric elements to the Sunday Rock story in the nomination from Thomas might have been something we could have helped with, especially if it was proposed as a TCP. The selection by TAUNY for RVSP was not mentioned in the narrative of the nomination to the National Park Service. As indicated earlier, after Thomas’s initial information on the registration form, SHPO made decisions about how best to present a case for this site and chose "historic preservation” of the rock by the community to emphasize. LaFrank has said to me: "A TCP nomination sometimes needs substantial research and writing from staff. In addition, the fact that we have not had success with NPS is discouraging. No one here has time to go through a three year process involving two staff and three different consultants, only to be turned down in the end [a reference to a Russian monastery she considered an excellent candidate for a TCP. That makes it much more likely that we will seek another way to nominate the property.”

 

Lessons Learned

Although I personally have always had an interest in architecture and vernacular architecture and in historic preservation issues and have led TAUNY’s efforts to create and maintain our RVSP program, the research for this case study has taught me several important things. For this study, I’m particularly grateful for the helpful conversations and correspondence with Sally Thomas, Kathleen LaFrank (the current coordinator of the National Register division of the New York SHPO), Bill Krattinger (the current SHPO National Register program officer for northern New York), Randy Crawford of Crawford & Stearns (a historic preservation architect and member of the New York SHPO National Register review board), Michael Tomlan (a historic preservation professor at Cornell), and Christine Capella-Peters (a landscape architect with New York SHPO).

Here are some lessons we’ve learned:

  • Non-architectural and vernacular architecture sites are commonly added to the New York State and National Register. Examples include carousels, a steam shovel, bridges, entire farmsteads, tuberculosis cure cottages, fire towers, the site of an explosion; an Italian community bake oven, one-room rural schoolhouses, and many more.
  • While Native American sites have dominated the TCP selection nationally so far, LaFrank says that no sites have been nominated in New York State to date. She adds:
  • "We do not have the same interest found in other states, nor the same vast areas…Archeology staff have pointed out that New York’s early settlement date and early confinement of native groups to small areas worked against retention of traditional sites.”
  • Given the apparent narrow interpretation of TCP at the National Park Service, LaFrank suggests that TCPs are not commonly pursued or selected. Reasons include a lack of clarity about TCPs and what that means for laypersons who wish to nominate and the extra effort to establish significance relevant to TCP guidelines, something she notes may need more staff time than they can justify, especially now, with major budget cuts, a small staff, and larger territories to cover.
  • Asked how folklorists or ethnographers could help her staff [and the public] with challenging TCP nominations, she replied:
  • "One of the major stickingpoints is defining a cultural group: a native American tribe is one without question and a group of Yankees fans is not one without question.The in-betweens can be tough….The other thing to bear in mind is that the traditional cultural activity must be ongoing by the cultural group. If it has stopped and is a thing of the past, then it is not a TCP but could be a candidate for listing as a regular site.”
  • And, given TAUNY’s commitment to RVSP and cultural landmarking in our region, should they want to do so, we folklorists need to determine how to help communities better prepare nominations, especially if there is a chance of presenting them as traditional cultural properties.

 

References Cited

Bethke, Robert D. Adirondack Voices: Woodsmen and Woods Lore. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2006

Burdick, Neal and Paul Jamieson, ed. The Adirondack Reader. Lake George, NY: The Adirondack Mountain Club, Inc. (Third Edition, 2009)

Chittenden, Varick A. "North Country on the Rocks!” Voices: The Journal of New York Folklore. Volume 36, Spring-Summer 2010, 16; http://www..nyfolklore.org/pubs/voic36-1-2/upstate.html

Chittenden, Varick A. "Put Your Very Special Place on the North Country Map! Community Participation in Cultural Landmarking. Journal of American Folklore. 119, 471 (Winter 2006):47-65.

Curtis, Gates, ed. "History of Colton, New York” from Our Country and its People: A Memorial Record of St. Lawrence County, New York. Glens Falls, NY: The Boston History Company, 1894

LaFrank, Kathleen. Email messages to author, August 31, 2012; October 9, 2009

Pospisil, Allan. "Separating the Woods from the World,” New York Times, October 8, 1968, n.p.

Ripley’s Believe it or Not, Watertown Daily Times, September 26, 1941, n.p.

Sunday Rock. National Register of Historic Places Registration Form. United States Department of Interior, National Park Service. 2010. http://www.oprhp.state.ny.us/hpimaging/hp_view.asp?GroupView=103598

"Sunday Rock.” Register of Very Special Places. http://northcountryfolklore.org/rvsp/index.php?id=129

Sunday Rock and Adirondack Landmark—Its History and the Story of its Preservation. Potsdam, New York: The Sunday Rock Association, 1929.



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